Interview With a Former Public Defender: Rio Attorney Alexandre Mendes Launches Book on Favela Removals [INTERVIEW]

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For the original article by Eduardo Sá in Portuguese published by Fazendo Media click here.

Various studies and specialists have declared that the last decade was the period during which the most people were evicted from their homes by the government in the Marvelous City. The reasons behind this are varied, but hosting mega-events like the World Cup and the Olympics was used as the main justification. In parallel with this process, affected residents in various neighborhoods of the city set up a resistance movement in partnership with the State Public Defenders’ Office’s Housing and Land Nucleus (NUTH) in Rio de Janeiro.

In order to maintain the memory of this period alive and present possibilities to the displaced, Alexandre Mendes, who previously worked as a Public Defender for NUTH (2006-2011) and who is now a law professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), edited the book “Resistance to Favela Removals in Rio de Janeiro” in partnership with Professor Giuseppe Cocco from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s School of Social Work (UFRJ), published by Revan. In this work he joins together an interview with Dona Penha, resident of Vila Autódromo, and various other articles by social activists who lived through the process. The book also highlights the difficulties faced by the Public Defenders who worked alongside social movements and the poor [mainstream Brazilian] media coverage on the subject, instead supporting the City government.

In an interview with Fazendo Media, Mendes affirms that the most violent evictions were promoted as protecting an idea of public property totally unrelated to its actual use, and defends a new way of managing urban spaces of large metropolitan areas. “It requires a total reinvention: nothing like the old bureaucratic and inefficient State, or the State-private elitist and exclusive partnerships. Why not have State-Society partnerships?” suggests the researcher. For him, it is necessary to broaden society’s participation in democracy, and to consider [ways to build] a more inclusive city.

How did the idea to put this book together come about?

The idea of compiling a book about the fight against favela evictions based on NUTH’s legal work came to me while I worked as a Public Defender and saw rich and important data sets, reports, experiences, impressions, and stories that came through the Public Defender’s Office daily couldn’t all be pulled together and systematized in a more coherent way due to our being overworked. I realized then that many people working in this field–interns, partners, activists, public defenders etc.–were also studying and researching the cases faced between 2007 and 2011 at undergraduate or postgraduate level at various universities. The truth is that we were all left heavily impacted by the entire process and used writing or research to talk about this experience. A third reason behind the book being brought into fruition is the recognition that the memories and experiences of these years are important to rescue, not as a process that is over or something from the past, but to serve as a living memory which can be useful in conflicts and understanding the present. And so it was that myself and Giuseppe Cocco, who had coordinated a piece of research on the subject at UFRJ, met up and started this book which we worked on over the course of two years.

The Public Defenders’ Office‘s Land and Housing Nucleus (NUTH) is one of few legal resources available to residents affected by removals. Have you faced challenges for struggling against strong economic and political power?

Yes, even within the institution itself! The book has a section that deals with the fight we had in 2011 to maintain the autonomy of the NUTH after four years of intense action. In truth, as early as 2010, we learned that our work was irritating the State Government, especially after we drafted an international notification to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) about Vila Autódromo. The State government wanted all controversies to be kept local but we saw that there was no room for dialogue here. Then, from January to April 2011, we suffered through the dismantling of our team and the work we had achieved, but this culminated in public protests, manifestos, and a movement for the independence of NUTH from the Public Defenders’ Office. At that time, the secretaries and interns were all discharged of their duties and we Public Defenders had to respond to disciplinary proceedings. The manifestos of repudiation of political persecution were organized and are published in the book. Today, we can say that the result of this public conflict was very positive even for the Public Defenders’ Office. After a few unstable years, NUTH resumed center stage acting in defense of favela residents, largely thanks to the work of new coordinators like Public Defender João Helvécio. The whole process was very tense and painful, but it was worth it.

Is it possible to identify the regions of the city most affected by evictions and structural data on the subject?

Some studies have already been carried out based on data from City Hall itself, indicating that about 20,000 families were evicted between 2009 and 2013. Aside from these, we can say that on the one hand removals have been generalized across the city as a whole. But on the other, the destination of the affected population is practically the same in all cases: [federal public housing program] Minha Casa Minha Vida (MCMV) condominiums in the [extreme] West Zone areas of Cosmos, Santa Cruz, and Campo Grande. In regards to the reasons presented by City Hall for the removals, we find the allegations of geological and environmental risk, infrastructure works (namely Bus Rapid Transit), and evictions related to ‘revitalization’ projects and promotions of tourism like at Porto Maravilha, the installation of cable cars, and reform projects linked to the World Cup and Olympics.

"I was able to conduct a study about the umbilical coherence between the editorials and news promulgated by O Globo and the strategies adopted by the City government," criticizes Alexandre Mendes.
“I was able to conduct a study about the umbilical coherence between the editorials and news promulgated by O Globo and the strategies adopted by the City government,” criticizes Alexandre Mendes.

The book, citing legal cases, covers practically all these facts and allegations, and also shows the intense struggle that ensued in order to avoid that these “big projects” serve to violate the rights to the city and housing. In almost every case, we realized that the fight was not just to defend those rights but also to build them. Communities organize to defend themselves, but also to propose projects that are not only viable, but are much better than the interventions proposed by the public sector. Vila Autódromo’s People’s Plan demanded an investment of R$20 million yet the removal proposal from City Hall ended up costing R$200 million from the public coffers and was inferior in all aspects (including democratic, environmental, and urbanistic). The fact is that we all paid so that an exclusive luxury condominium could drive the Vila Autódromo community out of its surroundings.

Why is it that you use the idea of ‘institution of the common’ to understand the evictions?

The concept of the ‘institution of the common‘ seemed interesting to me to drive home four points: first, the fact that evictions end up being the effect of an appropriation that occurs through a legal regime, that of both public and private property. It is often even harder to confront the public sector, which relies on prerogatives linked to the abstract concept of public interest, or due to the lack of right to obtain (adversely possess) private ownership of public property. I would even say that in Rio de Janeiro, during the time that we worked, the most violent and summary evictions were those that were propelled on the basis of protecting an idea of public property totally unrelated to its actual uses. So, to affirm the institution of the common in this case, means to affirm [community] self-governance of urban spaces and its uses, that acts to confront the double public/private mechanism that always ends with the same effect.

Secondly, institutions of the common are those that generate the wealth of life, relationships, and culture we observe in the everyday life of the city, especially in the favelas. Could we think of public policies that would be formed directly from the favelas and their forms of organization, or even, ‘common’ policies? An example would be Rocinha’s fight for basic sanitation, to the detriment of the cable car, which could basically predict what would happen after Alemão’s where roughly R$1 billion were spent on something that doesn’t work.

Thirdly, institutions of the common could be a way of thinking about a democratic radicalization of public services which today have all been conceded to private entities. It would take a total reinvention: neither the old bureaucratic and inefficient state nor the state-private elitist and exclusive partnerships. Why not have State-Society partnerships? That is to say, a democratization of services which would allow us to democratically govern the activities essential to daily life in the city? It seems like a Utopia but these experiences are already happening and are much more interesting than the State-private model we know.

Finally, the concept allows us to imagine forms of legal advice that are not limited to the type of help given by the State or the contractual kind given by the legal market. It would mean being without the tedious discipline of the State and the permanent control of the market which currently operate at such a distance from the more vivid dimensions of the struggles in the city. Advisory support groups as an institution of the common could be accessed by this lively dynamic and in its element would establish a permanent network of cooperation that would be created and recreated by the defining aspects of these struggles. By making a move away from the Cabinet, empowering the central role of young interns and inserting residents into strategic decision-making processes, NUTH would be able to try out this institution of the common framework within the structure of the state. There are other examples that have also been established within the legal field, such as the activist-advocacy network created in June 2013, democratizing the Rio de Janeiro Bar Association (OAB-RJ) itself. In both cases, we can observe institutions of the common being created by questioning the State-private model of current legal advice.

Now that the large infrastructure works, the principal justification of the evictions, is over, is the tendency for us to see and end to the relocation of these populations?

"We could think about public policies that would come directly out of the territories, based on their own forms of organization or, in other words, policies based on reality," defends the book's organizer.
“We could think about public policies that would come directly out of the communities, based on their own forms of organization or, in other words, policies based on reality,” defends the book’s organizer.

It is always hard to predict. The real estate expansion by Pedra Branca State Park where the Vargens Urban Structuring Plan (PEU) is proposed is worrying. A whole network of small agroecological communities, urban quilombos (like Quilombo Camorim), and poorer neighborhoods could be affected. When we were working in NUTH we heard that evictions there could reach up to 5,000 families. But, in any case, we can say that beyond the quantitative question of how many people may be removed, there is the qualitative problem of how to resist in the coming years. Today, there is an interesting network of residents, community collectives, public defenders, solicitors, university groups and media-activists in action. The important thing here, in my view, is to build these spaces with autonomy, and based in an ethics of cooperation. Perhaps this is one of the most delicate problems that have been accentuated by the political deterioration which started in 2014. In addition, there is always the risk of isolating groups that act against evictions. They need to think for the long term, about the proliferation of their struggles on a much larger and more complex scale than just their own locale.

What is your opinion about the journalistic coverage of evictions and in what way can this influence the process either positively or negatively?

Without a doubt, the most complicated coverage of the removals has always been that of the newspaper O Globo. At times we realized that their relationship with City Hall was so intense and responsive that the reports seemed to have been done hand-in-hand. Since we were in the habit of filing all articles that were published about each of our cases–this was carefully done by Public Defender Adriana Britto–I was able to carry out a study showing the umbilical coherence between O Globo‘s editorials and news stories, and the strategies adopted by City Hall. This study is also published as part of the book. On the same theme, we highlighted the participation of political figures traditionally from the Left who also fed this editorial line. Already in 2009, Housing Secretary Jorge Bittar, and Adilson Pires, both from the Worker’s Party (PT), had coined the phrase “democratic removals” in O Globo which they said would be different to past removals by “respecting the rights of residents.” This scandalous concept was also released and broadcast on some blogs and websites of the so-called ‘progressive media’ which was in part committed to the support of municipal government. On the other hand, a large and powerful media network standing against removals was formed in 2010. In that year, the most alarming facts related to removals occurred in Restinga, Vila Harmonia and Vila Recreio II communities. This network was able, quite successfully, to place criticism of the evictions in the city’s spotlight.

Do you want to add anything else?

Yes. I’d like to thank the authors who contributed to the book: Adriana Britto, Alexandre Magalhães, Ana Carolina Brandão, Bruno Cava Rodrigues, Carolina Câmara Pires, Clarissa Naback, Cristiano Muller, Fatima Tardin, Ludmila Paiva, Diogo Justino, Juliana Kazan, Mariana Medeiros, Manuela Meireles, Miguel Baldez, Ricardo Nery Falbo, Maria Lucia de Pontes, Laura Alves, Elaine Jesus, Roberta Fraenkel, Marilia Farias, Eliete Costa Silva Jardim, Giuseppe Cocco, Penha and Rafael Soares Gonçalves and ex-interns of NUTH. Our three administrative assistants: Josefa Reis, Vania Ornellas and Elpídio. And mainly I’d like to recognize the communities whose resistance attempts were recorded in this book: Canal do Anil, Casarão Azul, Prazeres, Estradinha, Laboriaux, Metrô Mangueira, Parque Novo Recreio, Providência, Ocupação Gomes Freire 510, Comunidade Jacaré do papo amarelo feliz, Vila Autódromo, Indiana, Casarão Maracanã, Largo do Campinho, Machado de Assis occupation, occupations on Rua do Livramento, Vila Recreio II, Vila Harmonia, Restinga, Pavão-Pavãozinho, Santa Marta, Rio das Pedras and Parque Columbia.